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Coin: Sacred sites mean protecting our way of life

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It was after midnight in the waning hours of the 2003 state legislative session when half a dozen tribal leaders gathered beneath the Capitol rotunda in Sacramento. Some of them wept.

The final vote on a bill to protect sacred sites was registered just moments earlier. The measure failed by three votes.

Brenda Soulliere, chairwoman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, was approached by reporters to comment. "Please," she said, "just give me a few moments alone."

Later, when she had composed herself, Soulliere spoke with the reporters. She expressed her sadness over the defeat of such an important bill. CNIGA, she pledged, will pursue the legislation in the 2004 session.

"We will not forget," Soulliere said. "We will not give up."

Forgotten loyalties

Republican opposition was very strong to Senate bill 18, which would have established protections for Traditional Tribal Cultural Sites. Many assembly members, who in the past had professed strong loyalties to tribal government sovereignty and support for tribal government gaming, refused to confront businesses and developers opposed to the measure.

Numerous revisions in the bill that had been agreed to in negotiations between Indian tribes and those opposed to the bill in the closing hours of the session failed to quell the concerns of the bill's opponents. They were assisted by an army of lobbyists who made hundreds of telephone calls to district representatives beholden to influential developers.

The opponents were well organized, spending more than $300,000 on a public relations campaign that included numerous articles and op-ed pieces in newspapers from one end of the state to the other. The articles were neatly packaged and mailed to legislators.

"Tribal leaders gazing down to the assembly floor from the Capitol gallery saw many of the articles lying on desks," CNIGA lobbyist David Quintana said. "Last-minute faxes and letters from the tribes were lost in the blizzard of mail that normally accompanies the waning days of a legislative session."

The bill may also have been a victim of California's recall election, where tribes were seen as supporters of democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. In one case since the legislature recessed its first session, Senator Jim Brulte, Republican minority leader, expressed concerns in at least one newspaper article over the tribes "interference" in the political process of the state.

The bill died 38-14, three short of the 41 votes needed for passage. Twenty-eight assembly members refused to even vote on the measure.

"When you consider the organized effort against us, it's amazing the vote was as close as it was," Quintana said.

That's small consolation. That's no consolation.

A fundamental, spiritual issue

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The preservation of traditional tribal cultural and sacred sites and, for that matter, the preservation of tribal customs, religions and spirituality, are issues that are so fundamentally important to Indians. This is the essence of what we are.

Sacred sites legislation is not an issue that should be left just to lawyers, lobbyists and politicians. At its core, this is not an issue that should be left to legislative and government processes that are not of our making.

Tribes first and foremost understand that this is not an issue that should be left only to tribal governments. In most cases, tribal governments are separate from a tribe's religious, ceremonial and spiritual institutions. Tribal religious, ceremonial and spiritual leaders must be consulted and asked to set the parameters within which the protection of tribal sacred sites can be achieved. This will establish the foundation upon which these matters can be successfully pursued.

But that's what happened with S. 18. Lawyers and lobbyists and consultants to tribal governments drafted the bill. They set the parameters of the proposed law.

The critical missing link in the process was the tribal religion and spiritual leaders.

When the late Janis Joplin sang, her words carried a great deal of meaning and substance because they were born of feelings that ran deep within her soul. Sacred sites legislation can only have meaning if it is born of tribal religious, ceremonial and spiritual leaders who, within them, carry the soul of California Indians.

They must be the ones who create the spirit for the bill. They must set the parameters. They must determine the boundaries beyond which wording in the legislation must not stray. They must tell the tribal leaders and the consultants and the lawyers and the legislators, "You can go only this far, because there can be no compromise beyond a certain point when it comes to protecting the Indian way of life."

We have already lost so much. There are some 40,000 Indian religious and cultural artifacts in a storage building in West Sacramento. In some cases tribes cannot get them back because we have lost the religious ceremonies needed to repatriate those items. Moreover, in too many cases we've lost the religious authority to get them back.

That's lost, and it's lost forever. And without that knowledge of tribal customs and ceremonies, without that authority, we may no longer know the essence of what we are as Indians, as tribes, as nations.

'We Will Not Forget'

Our future as indigenous people, as tribal nations, in California and throughout the country, depends very much on what we do today in protecting our culture and religions, our customs and our sacred sites. I want our people who come after us to be able to say, "We're stronger nations today because of what our ancestors did in 2003. They set us in the right direction."

Tribes in California and across the country must keep focused. Tribal government gaming is intended to do more than create jobs and economic development on Indian lands.

It is intended to rebuild nations destroyed by generations of poverty and neglect. That rebuilding process includes preserving tribal customs and cultural and sacred sites. We owe it to the Creator. We owe it to our ancestors. We owe it to our children and their children.

Brenda Soulliere was right. We will not forget. And we will not give up.

Jacob L. Coin is executive director of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, an association of more than 50 Indian nations in the state. He is a member of the Hopi Indian Tribe, Tobacco Clan, from the Village of Kykotmovi in Arizona.